Just how many visual artists are there in North and South Carolina? Well, at least 650. That's how many artists responded to gallery owner Larry Elder's open invitation to his second annual Carolina's Got Art! juried exhibition at Atherton Mill.
This show is the product of a clarion call to anyone in the Carolinas who calls himself an artist. Here, the conventional path to the gallery wall is circumvented. No art schooling or blueblood art world bio necessary; no gallery or museum vetting required. Send in your jpeg, our juror will look at your work. If it makes the cut, you're on the wall. You can't find a straighter path to the gallery wall.
On opening night, 1,000 visitors walked through the airy gallery at Atherton Mill. The space boasts high ceilings, wide walkways, good lighting — if the art can't look good here, the art can't look good. If you can't find something you like here, stop looking. These are your regional neighbors. Come see what foments in their psyches and jumps through their fingertips.
The jurist for the show was Mario Naves, New York artist and teacher, and the wickedly talented critic for the New York Observer. Mr. Naves mulled and culled 136 pieces from the 1,800 entries (that's 7.5 percent), and then chose Best in Show, 1st, 2nd, 3rd place and a handful of honorable mentions. You're permitted to puzzle over his choices and choose your own best. This is your show. This show was made for you and me.
"The Metropolis" by Gary Pohl is my Best in Show. Maybe that's just because I like to touch things, and gallery security didn't jump me when I played with the piece. I wind a pencil sharpener handle, which drives a chain, which turns bronze gears, which spin wheels behind glass. The wheels spin atop a collage of turn-of-the-century buildings receding to the horizon. Push the buttons at the base of the picture box and one of three spindles spins to rearrange random phrases in amusing or salacious or dumb phrases.
Lee Sipe received the actual Best in Show. "Vessel No. 320" is a copper wire woven pod the size of a swaddled infant. Burnt ends of copper trickle down from the vessel's lip like seeds oozing from a cut fig. The piece is intricate and fragile and otherworldly. It shimmers, but doesn't shine.
Ashlynn Browning's painting "With Steely Resolve" took 1st place from Mr. Naves. Opening night, the juror was repeatedly pelted with the question, "Why?" — the "Why?" which carries the unspoken subtext of "My kid could have done that." So I pelted him once more. I caught him in transit to the airport.
He sighed, paused, and then graciously complied: "The painting expressed ... a process ... of risk and discovery. Browning is struggling to wrest a ... fleeting moment of clarity from chaos ... It's both sophisticated and vulnerable."
Each artist selected for the show had the chance to write a statement to accompany their piece. I like reading the words of the artist, even when they're goofy or scary or impenetrable. Inspiration wells up from unexpected, sometimes inscrutable, places.
Stephanie Neely's "Hibiscus" is big and sensual and luscious. Neely sublimates a fervent, spiritual, moiling mojo into hi-definition color and line in her uber-realistic flowers. Every other hibiscus I have ever seen — on canvas or in garden or vase — was undersized and understated by comparison. She makes Audubon look clinical and chaste. Her statement describing the work is puffy and purple; the painting is best left unescorted by words, including mine.
"Equus" by Lindsay Brown is the disemboweled innards from the belly of a large beast. The calcified, lumpy clay surface is covered with nicks, scratches and scars; what appears to be the organ's black heart is staved with nails. Its ropey hungry maws reach up toward the ceiling. "Equus" is a small torture to behold.
The show is surprising for what it lacks. There are very few hallmarks of the weekend hobbyist — no clumsy fussiness or lame imitations or false intimations of grandeur. Qualities of skill — inventiveness, thoughtfulness, good eyes and hands — predominate. This wellspring of subterranean talent sprung from a call to the masses.
Power to the people.